Walter became a priest at age 24. Ten years later (in 1938), he moved to Poland, his parent’s homeland, on mission work. But in 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland so Walter fled to Russia. There he worked in the logging industry for a year until he was arrested on the false charge of espionage. He was first sent to Lubianka prison where he spent the better part of six years in solitary confinement. Then, in 1946, he was sent to Norilsk prison in Siberia where he spent 15 years in hard labor. But, in spite of his suffering, he remained faithful to his calling even in prison. He prayed for people, he prayed with people, he served communion, he heard confessions, and he conducted retreats. Indeed, his pastoral services were needed. On many occasions he was used by God to help people cope with death and dying. As a Christian, he comforted people by reminding them they need not fear death. So it is with a sense of irony that Walter records how he reacted when he was confronted by death. He writes:
“Facing a firing squad is a pretty good test…of your theology of death. I didn't exactly pass the test with flying colors... There had been a revolt of the prisoners at Camp 5 in Norilsk, and when troops were called in to put down the revolt they divided the prisoners up into small groups and marched them off. I was rounded up in a group of thirty…and led down to a sandpit about a mile away. We had no idea what disciplinary measures would be taken against us, but we never for a moment thought we would see the soldiers line up five yards in front of us with rifles ready, waiting only for the command to shoot. The command was given, the rifles raised…and leveled at our heads... [N]one of us really understood what was happening. Then the realization that we were actually looking into gun barrels awaiting only the command to fire came crashing into my consciousness with a force that stopped everything. My stomach turned once and went numb; my heart stopped; I'm sure I forgot to breathe; I couldn't move a muscle in my body...
“[I]n a fraction of a second I would stand before God, dumbfounded and unprepared...
“I can still remember vividly my awareness of the moment, and the…fear that gripped me, when I realized I was incapable of performing any Christian act to redeem myself...
“I have no idea how long that one moment lasted. Suddenly there was a shot in the distance, shouts, and a group of officers dashed out to stop our execution. All I know is that when the moment passed, my heart was pounding, every nerve and muscle shaking, my knees weak and trembling...
“Often enough, during the years of prison…, I had lived with the thought of death. I had seen men die around me... I had…helped others in their final moments, had lived with the talk and presence of death. What was there, then, about this moment that so terrified me, so completely unstrung me and made me incapable of functioning, of praying, even of thinking?” (from “Fear Not” by Walter J. Ciszek)
That’s a most appropriate question to ask on Easter: “What was there about this moment that so terrified me?” I think we can all relate. I know I can. What is it about death that so terrifies us? There’s something about death that leaves us feeling a certain measure of fear and apprehension. There’s something about death that leaves us “unstrung” as human beings. If Walter’s story tells us anything it tells us this: it's natural for us to fear death. After all, we’re only human.
And as humans, we naturally attempt everything in our power to escape death. We try to cheat death with exercise and diet and surgery and medicine and the list goes on. Many of us try to escape death or the fear of death by simply not thinking about it. Actually, I’m convinced this is what most of us do. As humans, we tend to think of death as happening to someone old, someone sick, someone else; we don’t tend to think of dying as something that will happen to us some day. Truth be told, we all tend to face life as if we are invincible. Yet, for each of us, death is inevitable.
The writer Johann Christoph Arnold puts it this way: “It is clear that when a person dies, eternity knocks at his door. Yet doesn't it knock for each of us, all the time? If we are elderly or ill, this isn't hard to imagine. It is much harder for those of us who are in good health, or in the prime of life. Then we are far more likely to…push it away as an unwanted reminder that not every dream of a long, happy life comes true. But even if we push it away, we can never know, when we get up in the morning, whether we have decades in front of us, or only days…”
The fact is: for each of us, death is inevitable. That’s the bad news. But what if I told you that “the facts” don’t end there? What if I told you that there is another side to the story (another fact none of us can ignore or should ignore) that gives us hope in death?
That fact is this: there is one person in history, one remarkable man, who has actually escaped death’s grip. His name is Jesus. And he proved his mastery over death in more than one way. Once, for example, Jesus’ friend Lazarus had died and was buried in a tomb. Four days later, Jesus showed up to comfort Lazarus’ sisters. His first words of comfort to Martha were these: “Your brother will rise again.” Then, he explained himself further by saying: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
I don’t know about you, but my first response to this is: WHAT?!!! ARE YOU CRAZY OR SOMETHING?!!! NEVER DIE? NEVER DIE? ARE YOU SERIOUS?
I think Jesus knew we would respond this way. That’s why he ended his unbelievable statement by asking a very simple question of Martha: “Do you believe this?”
Amazingly, Martha said, “Yes, Lord, I believe…” (Keep in mind: Martha didn’t know what was going to happen afterwards. Jesus had just made this incredible statement and then asked, “Do you believe?”)
I must admit, if Jesus had asked me that, I probably would have said, “WHAT?!!! ARE YOU CRAZY OR SOMETHING?!!! NEVER DIE? ARE YOU SERIOUS?”
But, my doubt would have been of little consequence to Jesus, because despite my unbelief, Jesus probably would have done what he did next, anyway. He ordered the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb to be rolled away. Then (after a brief discussion with some doubting humans about the advisability of doing so—an argument that Jesus, of course, won) Jesus prayed and called out in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!”
The scene that followed was described by an eyewitness with these words: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.” Then: “Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’” Jesus had demonstrated mastery over death! Jesus had proved that death is not inevitable because he is invincible! Now that’s power!
But, as ridiculous as this may sound, the human race was threatened by that kind of power, so a short time after this spectacular event, we tried to kill him; and, at first, it looked like death had won the final battle. His hands and feet were nailed to a cross and he was left hanging there to suffocate. Just hours later, Jesus died and a spear was stuck in his side to prove it. What would Jesus do now? Sure, he was able to bring another person back to life, but how on earth was he supposed to bring himself back to life? After all, it takes life to give life. Since Jesus had died, he no longer had life to raise himself. What could Jesus do now? Nothing, we thought, but lay dormant and rotting in a rich man’s borrowed grave, coated in linen and oil like his friend Lazarus, and shut off from the moon’s glow by a large rock rolled across the cold stone entrance of his tomb. Jesus could do nothing now, we said.
Fortunately, we didn’t have the last say in the matter. On the third day, the Master of Life ordered the stone rolled away from the entrance (just like he had done with Lazarus earlier!). But this time there was no one there to argue with about it. Jesus simply gave the order and it was done. And this time, Jesus didn’t have to say to others: “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” He simply did it himself (and even left his grave clothes separated neatly into two piles--as if death itself had now become a trivial matter akin to sorting the laundry). He showed us once and for all that he really is the resurrection and the life. He raised himself from the dead, so he can certainly conquer death for someone like Lazarus or Kelly or Scott or Ashley or Matt or Paul. And, if he conquers death, he can certainly take away our universal fear of death. That’s why the Bible tells us in Hebrews 2 that Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” That’s you and me and Walter the writer is talking about. Jesus came to free you and me and Walter; anyone who, all their lives, have been held in slavery by their fear of death.
My grandmother was a perfect example of this. She met her death without a trace of fear. I know, because I saw it with my own eyes. All her life, my grandmother hadn’t had so much as 10 colds and one day she contracted cancer. Now when most people find out they only have so long to live, they tend to react like Walter: with unexplainable, yet justifiable, fear. But, my grandmother faced death with confidence, because she knew death would not have the last word. She knew that Jesus was the resurrection and the life and that he had conquered death and had gone before her and would lead the way to life without end. She believed in Jesus’ power and love, so she did not fear. I will never be able to forget the sense of calm and peace she had in this process. Never once did I see the faintest glimmer of fear in her eyes. She was peaceful throughout. And her sense of peace over the weeks and months seemed to carry over right into the night of her death.
That night, I was in her dining room. It had been converted into a temporary hospital room and grandma lay on her hospital bed sleeping quietly. She was thin and pale at this point and we knew her passing was imminent. As we listened to her breath, it became weaker until finally she breathed in and she breathed out and then she didn’t breathe in again. We thought this was the end, but after a pause of a few (long!) seconds, she breathed in and she breathed out and then she didn’t breathe in again. A few more seconds passed and she breathed in, and out and then she didn’t breathe in again. That was her last breath. She passed into eternity with a gentle exhale. And the peace she had in the process of dying seemed to settle in the room.
At her funeral I sang a song about life without end. The words go like this: But just think of stepping on shore and finding it heaven,/ of touching a hand and finding it God’s,/ of breathing new air and finding it celestial,/ of waking up in Glory and finding it home.
Death does not have the last word. Jesus does. Because of that, we can meet death the same way my grandmother did: we don’t need to fear death anymore because Jesus has conquered death. That’s a fact. He has conquered death! And all he asks of us is to believe him. That’s all.
Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Do you believe this?